But, he said, there is still work to be done.
“Now it’s about building a connection.”
Been in the works
Despite the increase in national attention to police brutality over the past year, DPS Spokesman Randy Young said this change was not prompted by recent events.
“It’s something we’ve been looking into for around three years. It’s more a trend in the industry as a whole,” he said.
The cameras debuted at FallFest, Young said, and will be worn by every one of the department’s 55 officers.
“I think this was something that was always going to happen,” Young said.
Both Young and Chapel Hill Police Spokesman Lt. Josh Mecimore, whose department has also been experimenting with cameras, lauded the benefits of the cameras.
The two departments occasionally overlap, and Young was confident the new cameras would not cause issues in how they work together.
“We are very well-rehearsed in our responses,” he said, referencing the recent emergency preparation drill as an example.
Mecimore also mentioned that his department’s interest in the cameras is not related to the national debate on police and citizen relations.
But Student Body President Houston Summers said he felt recent events spurred the project along.
He said Student Government met with Chancellor Carol Folt, DPS and others to voice its want for the cameras.
“There was a lot of influence nationally about getting this done,” Summers said. “We did push a little bit when it was appropriate.”
The public’s access
The body cameras have been advertised by police forces across the country as an increased effort designed to improve transparency, but it’s unclear what access the public will have to the footage recorded by officers.
Young said much of what the cameras pick up will be considered “evidentiary,” meaning police can withhold the information from the public in order to maintain the integrity of an investigation.
The North Carolina Public Records Act generally allows for this action, but because the legislation was drafted before the cameras’ surge in popularity there is no explicit reference, creating a potential legal gray area.
Cathy Packer, a media law professor in the School of Media and Journalism, said this “new wrinkle in media law” can be made clear through two means: a change to the existing law or a judge’s ruling on a body camera lawsuit.
“The Daily Tar Heel could sue for access to the video records, and a judge would have to decide how these videos apply to the current law,” Packer said.
She predicted that state legislators will amend the existing law to exclude videos from public record law, but found the public message of increased transparency hypocritical.
“They say it is about transparency but then say it’s not a public record,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Mckellar, the BSM president, is focused on ensuring this positive step doesn’t regress.
He and Summers said it is on students just as much as the University to create a more trustworthy relationship with students, but Mckellar did mention that DPS reaching out first would make improving relations easier.
“Even if it is just having an event where it’s a communal thing that is sponsored by DPS,” he said. “We don’t hear their reactions to everything going on around us, around the country ... I think it would be helpful to hear what they have to say.”